Self-talk and becoming a better friend to ourself

I often say when talking about the Loving Kindness practice that if I were to talk to my friends as I talk to myself I soon would not have many friends. Think for a moment of the last time you made a mistake………can you remember how you spoke to yourself? Or think of your self spilling a coffee or messing up at work….what would you be telling yourself………….

It’s very likely you notice your self talk is hard, judgemental and inflexible – it expects you to be perfect all of the time and cannot allow you to mess up. Now think of how you would talk to a friend if they made the same mistake. What would you say? Would you be a harsh critic of them, or reassure them that everyone can make a mistake, that it’s ok for them to mess up sometimes and that it doesn’t change how you feel about them.

Why then, if our natural tendency is to be kind to our friends do we reserve such harsh inner talk for ourself?

Some of this is due to upbringing – we have internalised the criticism of a parent or teacher and now apply it to ourself. My mother used to say to me when I made a mistake: “you haven’t got the brains you were born with”. This used to worry me immensely as I thought I was literally loosing bits of my brain and it was showing up through me being clumsy or making a mistake. Although I would not use that phrase now to myself, it clearly set a tone. And it is this tone of our self talk that it is so important to notice.

What is your tone? Is it weary and long suffering “not again, when will I ever learn”, aggressive “I’m such a fucking idiot”, plaintive “all the things I might have done and look at me” or some other tone? As we then notice the tone and hear the self talk it becomes possible to challenge it. We might simply say “No, enough of this” or “this does not help me, enough”.

We might enquire into the self talk and question it. I did this the other day as I was running late for my LGBT self-compassion course! I was on the tube thinking “I hate being late, why can I never leave on time….now I’m going to have to rush and I hate rushing”. Then I asked myself, if I hate being late, who was it that decided to keep tidying my room to get it settled after recently moving in? If ‘I hate being late’ is who I am, then that self would have told me “time to go”. But instead there’s another self who delights in taking his time and delaying. As I pondered this I suddenly heard a child’s voice in my mind saying “you always try to rush me, you never give me any time….I hate you!” And in a moment I realised that this is the inner self who doesn’t care a bit about being on time, who just wants to play and have fun and not consider how his actions impact on an appointment or another.

From sitting on the tube telling myself off for not leaving on time, it shifted to being the witness to these two opposing drives within me: be on time and just play. And the harshness of my self talk changed and instead became a gentle enquiry, asking the little boy what he wanted and why he liked to always make me late…..and I heard his point of view and brought him more into conscious awareness from the shadow place he had held in my pysche till now. I’m still seeing how this plays out in terms of being able to leave in good time instead of rushing against the clock – but no end of harsh criticism of myself for being late would ever have helped as it would have only played into the little boys narrative of being pushed around by the demanding adult…and he would have just resisted more! As Jung says: “what we resist persists and what we fight we get more of”, by which he meant what is pushed into the shadow and is not consciously know will only come to have more power over the choices we make without us knowing it is there.

Next time you notice this harsh self-talk ask yourself “is this how I would talk to a friend” and if not consider “how would I talk to a friend in this situation?”. You might then use a method for challenging self talk, such as reflecting “I can make a mistake without being a mistake”, or “messing up is human….I’m human like everyone else and we all make mistakes, so I’m ok even if I have just made a mistake”

This might sound self indulgent. But the repercussions of allowing the negative self-talk to dominate can be even worse. When we go into this negative self talk it initiates the fight/flight response and the prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is the part of the brain connected with rational thought. Instead we go into an instinctual state of survival in the reptilian brain. When someone on one of my 8 week courses made a mistake at work, pressing the wrong button which in a second caused millions of pounds worth of damage he noticed this initial reaction: “I’m such an idiot, oh God they will fire me”. But he remembered to breathe, ground himself by feeling the sensations in his body, and reminding himself it was ok, that he was allowed to mess up and he could find a way through.

At first his manager was furious with him. But over the course of the day, by keeping a clear head by not allowing himself to go into fight/flight and instead staying in the more creative space of presence he was able to resolve the issue By the end of the day his manger had nothing but praise for him!
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